By Richard Martin
WATFORD, England (Reuters) - Having grown up with the burden of being dubbed the heir to Lionel Messi at Barcelona, Gerard Deulofeu is grateful to have found some breathing space at Watford, where he is rediscovering the potential which thrust him into the spotlight as a teenager.
With four assists and five goals since December, including a stunning hat-trick against Cardiff City, Deulofeu is riding the wave of a dream season for the Premier League club, who have European football and FA Cup glory in their sights.
"Since I was a kid I have played with the pressure of always comparing myself to the very best players, but that’s in the past now," Deulofeu told Reuters in an interview at Watford's training ground.
"Watford is not Barcelona and you are not under the same pressure, so perhaps you end up playing with more confidence. But most of all what I want to do is reach my peak and I’m going to keep fighting to do that."
The Catalan has settled in well at Watford after a whirlwind career which has taken him to Everton, Sevilla, AC Milan and back and forth to Barcelona, but he does not hide his ambition to return to the elite of European football.
"Watford has a certain profile but for now it’s not a top club," the 24-year-old added.
"We’re eighth in the table, fighting to finish seventh and qualify for Europe, but I cannot close the door to other teams.
"I'm focussed on Watford but of course my objective is to play for a top team, that’s normal, just like any other professional."
RAISED BY GUARDIOLA
A return to Barca is not on the cards but he would fancy a reunion with Pep Guardiola, who was his first senior coach at his boyhood club and will be on the opposing bench on Saturday when Watford visit Premier League leaders Manchester City.
Deulofeu made two appearances as a substitute in Guardiola’s final season at Barca and he would have liked to have spent more time learning from the visionary Catalan coach.
"Guardiola was a very special coach for me, the first when I was at Barcelona. He is a great coach, a lovely person and I have very good memories of that time but I would have liked to have had a full year with him," he said.
"I was very young and I wasn’t in the dressing room much, but I'm very grateful for the opportunities he gave me."
Asked if he could see himself at City one day, Deulofeu did not hesitate.
"Of course, that’s why I keep working," he said.
"I like their wingers a lot, [Kevin] De Bruyne, [Leroy] Sane, [Raheem] Sterling and [Riyad] Mahrez, they are guys who play like I do, so why not? I'm going to fight for that, although for now I'm focussed on doing well at Watford."
Deulofeu relishes the rough and tumble of the Premier League, which he says is more physically demanding than Serie A and La Liga.
But most of all he is grateful to be playing every week after warming Barca's bench in the first half of last season.
"I was doing great at Milan, then I came back to Barca. I had my opportunities, perhaps not enough of them, then I went a month without playing," Deulofeu recalled.
"I'm a guy who likes to play a lot, I don’t like being on the bench or missing games so I came here to Watford so I could play as much as possible. I'm happy with my decision."
With fellow Spaniard Javi Gracia at the helm, Watford was an attractive platform for Deulofeu to try to get back into the Spain team for the 2018 World Cup, but a fifth metatarsal injury a month after switching clubs derailed those hopes.
A second breakdown in pre-season prevented him from playing until October. Although injury-free since then, he still ices his foot twice a day and does strength training in the gym at his London home to prevent a relapse.
But just as with his time at Barcelona, Deulofeu is not looking back, and there is plenty to look forward to.
Watford are on course for their best ever Premier League finish and are in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, hosting Crystal Palace next week with a semi-final at Wembley at stake.
"It was a disaster but you have to move on," he said.
"Watford showed a lot of faith in me in those times and we are having a great season, but we have to finish it well."
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Nick Mulvenney)